Experiencing Wagner’s Ring Cycle at The Met

Me standing in front of the Metropolitan Opera House with arms wide open

“All right everyone. Shhhh!”, the man’s voice pierced the air, heavy with anticipation. This was followed by light laughter from some fellow opera-goers and then clapping by all those who approved. I was one of them. “Here we go”, I thought sitting comfortably in the second seat from the aisle in row F of the Family Circle at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. I felt like everything I had experienced in my life led me to this moment, about to enjoy Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Met.

Standing in front of the Met before seeing the Ring Cycle

Beginning as a small child, I learned to sit for long periods of time. The daughter of a composer and a music publisher, I was dragged to many concerts and asked to sit still for hours. I was also raised Quaker and as such was expected to sit up to an hour in silence in Quaker Meeting on Sunday mornings. Little did I know then that learning the skill of being still would come in so handy decades later.

My love of heavy metal in my teen years and beyond might not seem like a direct link to Wagnerian music. But I have found that my love of the heaviness of Metallica, for example, set me up to appreciate the power of the brass in Wagner’s music.

Costumes while seeing the Ring at the Met
Costumes worn by Birgit Nilson (1960-1975) and Helen Traubel (1941-1951) respectively

In undergrad I studied music performance which included music history and music theory courses. It’s here that I first became acquainted with Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (the idea that multiple art forms can not only exist at the same time but are of equal importance and as such they enhance each other). I also learned about Wagner’s concept of the leitmotif, the idea that a single musical phrase represents a person (like Siegfried), an object (like the sword) or an idea, even complex ones (such as redemption through love).

Also during undergrad I loved watching Star Trek the Next Generation. This show was full of provocative “big picture” ideas. I have found that many of the ideas expressed in The Ring can also be found in this series. The concept of honor, for example, is of utmost importance and is indeed tied to the very identity of the Klingon race.

For my birthday one year in my mid-20s my friends Chris and Robert gave me my most treasured possession: a pair of vintage opera glasses. I have taken them to many opera houses in the United States and across Europe. They were there when I saw Tannhäuser in Baltimore, Tristan und Isolde in San Francisco and Der Fliegende Holländer in Berlin. And of course I walked into the Met with them in my hand.

The opera glasses I used while watching the Ring at the Met
My opera glasses have been to over 100 opera performances in 20 opera houses!

In the weeks leading up to The Ring production at the Met I found myself thinking back on my many opera experiences. After graduating from college I began working for Southwest Airlines, where I used my flight privileges to travel as much as possible. The perks of this job also allowed me to maintain several opera subscriptions around the country. After moving to northern Connecticut to help open the Hartford station, I was able to fly down to Baltimore and over to Chicago and San Francisco on a regular basis. I also took the train down to New York’s Met for their matinees. My grandfather and I both had a subscription to the Hartford opera and enjoyed going together and discussing what we thought of each production afterward.

During that same time I used to frequent the Chicago Art Institute every time I flew in for an opera matineé. I found the impressionist paintings the most pleasurable to look at. I loved seeing how the visual art of the Impressionist Period corresponded to the Romantic Era in music. I have always found Wagner’s Ring music very “swirly” for lack of better term and impressionistic, almost a musical interpretation of some of the impressionist paintings that are so pleasing to my eye.

And little did I know then that only a few years later I would find myself in the unique position to actually meet one of Wagner’s granddaughters in a small cafe in Weimar, Germany. What a moment!

Having minored in German in college (where I was tasked with reading The Nibelungenlied in the original middle-high German), I decided to move to Germany and so settled in Berlin for three years. I attended every opera performance I could in all three of Berlin’s opera houses all three years. My time in Germany helped me strengthen my German and I learned more about German history. Once I got up to the highest level of German in my language school, I was able to read Nietsche in the original language! Upon reflection, I realized that Neitsche’s idea of the Superhuman, among other ideas, appears in the Ring.

Selfie of me before seeing the Ring at the Met
Mandatory selfie with The Met

I was able travel to Norway 4 times, each time learning more about the trolls, the Vikings, Valhalla and Norse mythology. My visits to this Scandinavian country directly helped me understand the storyline of The Ring on a deeper level.

After moving to Canada I entered a Master’s program where I found myself in a wonderful course called Aboriginal Knowledge and Knowing. The Ojibwa professor often discussed the power of the earth and gave an example of how a single blade of grass has the ability to push up the concrete of the sidewalk. I found myself reflecting on that course as I learned more about The Ring. Erde (Earth) is even a character in the plot and of course no one heeds her advice!

Even going to the Chinese opera in Beijing helped prepare me for The Ring. I learned about the importance of color and movement in Chinese opera in addition to the notes being played. I felt that this was an incredible discipline of Gesamtkunstwerk. Totally unfamiliar with the music of any Chinese opera, I found myself focusing on other areas of the performance such as movement, costume, storyline and even make-up all of which I have learned are important in in this music genre.

Standing and pointing at the billboard advertisement of the Ring at the Met
The reason I came to New York!

I then moved to Thailand for 2.5 years. Living in the Buddhist country I was able to learn a bit about the concept of enlightenment and self-realization, all of which ties in so well to The Ring.

Exactly one year before attending the Met’s Ring Cycle, I began listening to lectures on leifmotifs of the work, on Wagner’s life and how the piece historically fit into the musical world at the time and on the gnostic teachings that exist in several traditional ideologies in the world and how they correspond to Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

And so with all this life experience and knowledge, I stepped into the familiar hall of the Met, with its deep red carpet, silver chandeliers and rich history.

Das Rheingold

“All the way up at the top”, the woman told me as she scanned my ticket at the entrance to New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. As I climbed the stairs of what would be the first of four nights, I found myself comparing my ascent to the ascent of the mountains referenced in the Ring.

The stage of The Ring at the Met
The view from my seat. I arrived early for Das Rheingold, excited for the epic event!

The crowd seemed like a different sort of opera crowd. Not only did I hear several languages around me, including German right behind me, but also people weren’t talking about the usual “is this your first time at the Met?” and “what have you done in New York so far?” that I’d heard so many times before. Instead, I heard discussions of leitmotifs and Wagner in general. Many were trying to read in the poor light of the hall, hanging on to every word of the performance notes.

There were spaces set aside on either side of the 4th balcony for those who wished to read the score along with the opera. Small tables with lights were at each seat. And standing room tickets were apparently $50, much higher than normal.

Side view of the Ring at the Met

At the end of Das Rheingold, “see you tomorrow” was spoken all around me by and to perfect strangers. But we all had this experience in common. After awhile we got to recognize each other and greeted each other with every performance. “How was the drive in from Jersey?” I would ask my neighbor.

Die Walküre

“All the way at the top”, the ticket taker told me again. “Don’t I know it”, I responded this time, having learned my lesson about wearing high heels the previous performance.

As I climbed the familiar sets of stairs with tennis shoes on this time I became increasingly excited about this opera in particular. The leitmotif for the Valkyries is so well-known it’s even made its way into pop culture even when most people don’t know the Wagnerian origins. And the music given to Brünnhilde with octave leaps up to high C’s was something I was very much looking forward to.

With the rise of the strength of women in our society and having felt the power of attending the Women’s March in Washington, I was eager to see some amazing powerful women on stage, including the role that has become synonymous with opera itself. A warrior, Brünnhilde, with her breast plate, horns and a spear is the very reason “it ain’t over til the fat lady sings”. In short, this was the night we were introduced to the woman who would burn the world to the ground only a few days later. And I was ready!

Brunnhilde costume from the Ring at the Met
Wow! I sure hope that shield isn’t as heavy as it looks!

Siegfried

As I climbed the stairs up to the Family Circle (still all the way up at the top), I mentioned to the woman next to me that this climb was like Siegfried’s climb up the mountain to awaken Brünnhilde. She agreed and said, “but without the fire”. My burning muscles disagreed.

As the lights went down just before the third act I wondered what a 17-year nap might feel like. And then I wondered what waking up from such a nap might feel like.

I was struck by the humor in Siegfried as I wasn’t expecting it and found it caught me off guard. It caused me to do some research during one of the intermissions as to whether this was Wagner’s intention or the current director’s interpretation. It turns out that Wagner did indeed have a lighter side.

Götterdämmerung

I had mixed feelings climbing those stairs on the final night. I was incredibly excited to hear the emulation scene, the final moments of this amazing work. But at the same time, I knew this was my last time climbing those stairs this time around. I stepped purposefully.

For the final performance I noticed several women (and even one guy) wearing Brünnhilde helmets (helmets with horns and blond braids flowing down the sides). I mentioned to a woman wearing such a helmet as we were leaving the Met for the final time, “I guess you don’t get to wear that helmet very often”. She quickly responded, “I wear it all the time”. I laughed and as if I had encouraged her to continue, she went on, “like when I go to Home Depot”. I instantly loved her!

The Metropolitan Opera building during one of the intermissions
Before the final act of Götterdämmerung the sky turned foreboding, almost predicting that the end was near!

Watching Götterdämmerung it struck me that Wagner wrote these operas over the course of a decade and by this one he had honed his craft. The music was more complex and intricate than Das Rheingold. I felt we had traveled with him as he developed his skill.

I unexpectedly cried at the end of Götterdämmerung. I was even shaking. I usually avoid crying in public at all costs but I was moved. The leitmotifs intertwined the music and story so perfectly! Hearing the redemption of love leitmotif souring above the rest was so incredible. I felt like I too was experiencing something – not simply observing and enjoying. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.

Feeling like the music had seeped its way into my very soul, I left the opera house that night with an entirely new understanding of Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk. I felt like I went from a third person comprehension to a first person one. I suppose I can liken understanding Gesamtkunstwerk to learning a new card game. The rules of the game can be explained which can give you an excellent academic grasp of the game, but until you actually play, you won’t fully understand it.

Looking down from the balcony at people leaving after the final performance
Watching everyone file out for the last time!

Advice for Eating Vegan Around the Met

There is a vegan food cart west of the Met, next to Lincoln Center subway station at 66th and Broadway. They serve a variety of to-go items that you could enjoy on the way to the Met or to save for one of the intermissions.

Vegan food stall near the Met

Whole Foods at Columbus Circle underground across from Central Park has fresh food to take away. There is also a cafe that has several vegan soups, including Egyptian lentil and split pea.

And while you’re at Columbus Circle, consider checking out Blossom, a vegan fast food place that sells burritos, bowls and more.

If you’re looking for something to drink, just outside the door that takes you down to Whole Foods is a smoothie truck with a ton of choices of fruits and veggies.

Melissa’s Gourmet grocery store at 62 W 62nd St (open from 7am – 2am) near Columbus Circle has some vegan options to go. These include cans of lentil soup, fruit and a salad bar.

Pet Peeve about American audiences

In every opera I attend in North America, the audience claps when the singer is finished the aria and not when the orchestra is finished. European audiences on the other hand tend to wait until the entire musical line is finished before showing their appreciation. For the most part I simply go with the flow and adapt to which ever audience I am apart of.

But with Wagner every note is vitally important (something that could be argued about every composer’s music)! Some people in the audience would start clapping when the curtain started going down at the end of an act for example while the music was still playing. This caused others, like me, to miss the often tender music that could be full of leitmotifs. Others would try to shush those clapping at the wrong time which just added to the detraction of the music.

Basically, when it comes to Wagner, just shut the hell up until the VERY end! Take a breath and then, by all means, go nuts!

Overall assessment of the Met’s production

The music was stunning and played beautiful by the Met orchestra. Careful attention was payed to volume and sensitivity of the music. It felt like each note was carefully cupped in one’s hand and carried to the next note. The complexities of the music became seemingly simple and delicate like a spider’s web.

The singers were very good and lived up to the Met standard. Brünnhilde, sung by Christine Goerke, was good, but not phenomenal. I was impressed how easily she could move such a big dramatic voice through her entire vocal range. I, did, however, find that her large vibrato was often tight and to my ear it sometimes crossed over to bleating blocking the fullness of her voice. Still, I was impressed with her and anyone who can memorize so much – she was featured in three of the four operas! She came to the stage on the final night to a well-deserved roaring applause and lots of shouts, including some of my own!

The voices that blew me away were those of Sieglinde, sung by a Dutch woman named Eva-Marie Westbroek, and Hagen, performed by a US-American bass-baritone named Eric Owens.

I was disappointed with the big, rather elaborate, contraption they had on stage with moving parts. While it allowed for easy set changes on stage, it was often loud and squeaky when engaged during very tender moments in the music. This, in my opinion, was a major oversight and seemed to disrespect some sections of Wagner’s music.

Advice and Tips for Attending the Ring Cycle

Wear comfortable shoes! The first night I wore high heels thinking that it wasn’t a long walk from the Empire Hotel across the street and back. I quickly decided that comfort at all cost was of highest importance. I wore tennis shoes to each subsequent opera.

Think of your back! I also made a pillow for the event, which would serve as both a source of comfort during the long stints of sitting and a commemorative memento afterwards. The first night I sat on the pillow but I found that it was more affective to place it at the small of my back instead.

The pillow I made for the Ring at the Met
I made this Wagner pillow on my grandmother’s old Singer!

Go for convenience! The intermissions are anywhere from 30 to 39 minutes long, and I found that it was faster to walk across the street to the Empire Hotel to use the bathroom in my room than it would have been to wait in the long line for the bathroom at the Met. Plus, I could get some water, eat something (you will definitely need to plan for something to eat during the 5+ hours of opera each night) and even give another listen to the leitmotifs I would be hearing in the next act.

Book a hotel as close to the venue as possible! Given how late the performances let out each night, I highly recommend staying as close to the Met as possible so you are not having to pay for expensive taxi, uber or lyft rides or find yourself on the subway at midnight.

Leitmotifs, leitmotifs, leitmotifs! Listen to the leitmotifs and try to memorize as much as you can before each performance. Learn as much about the symbolism you will encounter with each opera as well.

Bring tissues! You never know when you will be struck by emotion whether it be from the drama unfolding or simply by the music.

Plan something special for afterwards! A woman I spoke with during the first intermission of Götterdämmerung told me that she had seen the entire Ring more than 10 times and went on to list all the places she had seen it. (When in her 20’s, she had even heard Birgit Nillson perform Brünnhilde! She said that she always makes sure to order herself a pastry at her hotel at the end of the Ring because it’s a bittersweet moment. She’s always sad that it’s over. “There isn’t another opera to look forward to”, she told me. I felt the same way.

Overall, this was an experience of a lifetime and I am glad I got the chance to finally see Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Met! I wonder where I’ll be able to see it next.

Is attending Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Met on your musical bucket list?

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